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Sunday, February 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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The sensitively reconstructed Wisconsin Union Theater tries to please many constituencies
'Don't you dare mess up my theater'

Credit:Eric Tadsen

"This is my favorite part," says Ralph Russo, the Wisconsin Union's director of cultural arts and theater. He's stopped to admire the view of Lake Mendota from the newly completed Sunset Lounge, part of the Wisconsin Union Theater construction project, which has been underway for two years.

He says it again as we gaze at the reconfigured loading dock where the scene shop used to be. He says it several more times as he conducts a tour of the renovated west wing of the Memorial Union. Clearly he's excited about the completion of the $54 million project, and about the theater's newly reinvented spaces. If our tour is any indication, there's much for the community to be excited about as well.

A bright beginning

When Wisconsin Union Theater opened its doors in October 1939, reviews were good. Appearing at the venue in a touring production of The Taming of the Shrew, Alfred Lunt pronounced the acoustics "simply marvelous." The theater was also named "one of the 25 most distinguished contemporary buildings in America" at the San Francisco World's Fair later that year.

In the intervening decades, the stage welcomed many notable performers and public figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Louis Armstrong, Martha Graham and Kurt Vonnegut.

But aside from minor upgrades to the lobby in 1988, little work was done on the building before the recent construction. The space's age was starting to show. Thanks to the Memorial Union Reinvestment project, supported by student fees, operating revenue and individual donors, the entire west wing of the Union has been improved while maintaining its historical integrity.

A sense of ownership

Looking wistfully at the mixture of Indiana limestone and Wisconsin sandstone that now covers the exterior of the expanded theater space, Russo acknowledges what a big challenge the project has been.

"I've remodeled a kitchen and a bathroom in my own home, but this is a whole different scale," he says.

Added to the Memorial Union 10 years after its original construction, the west wing includes the theater as well as Outdoor UW (formerly Hoofers and outdoor rentals), Wheelhouse Studios (formerly Mini Courses and the Craftshop) and Der Stiftskeller. Satisfying the diverse programming needs of these entities would be complex even if the project didn't have thousands of stakeholders.

"It's the second most recognizable building in Madison, right after the Capitol," Russo explains. "When I was...talking about the renovation project and meeting with alumni and potential donors, the one thing we heard over and over was, 'Don't you dare mess up my theater.' There was an enormous sense of ownership from former students who had performed here and had seen shows here. People mentioned the [HVAC, electrical and plumbing] systems, and improving accessibility, but they didn't want us to change the look of the theater at all."

That sense of ownership was also evident in the enormous response to the university's pre-construction forums, surveys and listening sessions. The project's architects and planners estimate that they received programming and design input from about 17,000 people, including students.

Since the Memorial Union is part of the Bascom Hill Historic District, the renovation plans were closely scrutinized by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

"It's much more difficult to update and restore an older building rather than tearing it down and starting all over, as was done with Union South," explains Marc Kennedy, communications director for both student unions. "The design committee took utmost care, especially in the signature spaces, including the theater. [It] worked very closely with the Wisconsin Historical Society to understand the building's historical features and how to protect and maintain them."

The design team's challenges included retaining the historic interior and expanding front-of-house and lobby spaces, all while addressing the concerns of multiple constituencies. Like many performers who've graced the WUT stage, they made their work look easier than it is.

Beauty, comfort and accessibility

As patrons enter from Langdon Street, a bright, open hallway with high ceilings greets them, along with a view that extends across the building to the lake. Inside the Fan Taylor Lobby is a circle of the original wooden stage, encompassed by a brass ring engraved with the names of many of the theater's most notable performers. The lobby's original wood veneer has been replaced with new materials, but the area's appearance has been retained. And there's new carpeting that recalls the color and pattern of the original.

"WUT has a rather unique Art Moderne appearance, a non-decorative derivation of the Art Deco style," explains Robert K. Larrimer, project manager for Moody Nolan, a design firm that also worked on Union South. "Modern technology, such as a control room and on-floor sound booth, and acoustic and mechanical system improvements, was integrated into the existing house, while finishes were restored as close as possible to their original appearance."

Inside Shannon Hall, WUT's grandest performance space, new lighting rigs have been installed at the balcony level, on the sides of the stage. And the theater will now sound even better due to new metal acoustic panels that line Shannon Hall's walls.

Under the stage, Shannon Hall has a dramatically enlarged orchestra pit with a new mechanical lift. The old space could hold 15 to 18 musicians. The new space can fit 38, which makes it better suited for large-scale musicals and opera. A new orchestra shell can even be dismantled into modular component parts and stored above the stage in the fly space, so it will not encroach on precious wing space.

Ambient noise from the street was a problem for performers and audience members alike at the old theater. Moving the loading dock solved this problem. Likewise, light from the lobby could enter the old auditorium. Now doors seal the entrances, making it much easier to create a dramatic blackout. There are also new offices for theater staff, a fully equipped wardrobe room, large and bright dressing rooms, a green room with a kitchen and stage monitor, and storage areas for a pair of nine-foot Steinway pianos.

But some of the most important updates concern accessibility for visitors with disabilities.

"The balcony wasn't accessible to wheelchairs, nor were the bathrooms," Kennedy says. "There weren't ADA-approved seats. Some floors in the west wing were not accessible at all. There were more than two dozen level changes and no elevator in this section of the building."

These issues have been addressed. Plus, the project brings the building up to code when it comes to fire safety, sprinklers, energy efficiency and asbestos abatement.

More performance opportunities

Russo notes that Shannon Hall is the only proscenium-style theater on campus. This design has the whole audience face the front of the stage, which is framed by arches.

"We want to be able to offer UW students that experience, both onstage and working backstage," Russo says, noting that the UW theater department plans to do one large production per year at WUT rather than Vilas Hall. He also points to other uses for the space: master classes, dance concerts, performances by the UW orchestra and other ensembles from the music school.

"That's really our mission: to give students a professional space to perform and create in," Russo explains.

The new Fredric March Play Circle is a more flexible theater than its previous incarnation, accommodating 200 audience members.

"It will be a real black box, with telescopic seats that can be stacked for dances or other events that need a large, open space. The stage is at the bottom, and sightlines are excellent," says Esty Dinur, WUT's marketing and communications director.

Outfitted with state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, the new Play Circle can host events such as cabarets, open-mike nights and world music shows, according to Dinur.

A new rehearsal hall, simply called the Studio Room, is a bright, open space with a sprung floor, enormous mirrors and curtains, and natural light from windows near the ceiling. A barre can be installed for dance classes, and with dimensions that match those of the Shannon Hall stage, it's perfect for theater rehearsals.

Students aren't the only ones who'll bring theater productions to the stage. Community groups will as well. Sarah Marty, producing artistic director of Four Seasons Theatre, is helping to mount Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate at Shannon Hall Aug. 22-24.

"[It's] an homage to the very first performance in the space back in 1939, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne," she says. "Hopefully this will be the beginning of a whole new era of great performances on the WUT stage."

Marty is also excited about the venue's new features.

"We're looking forward to the improved lighting and sound capabilities," she says. "Beyond that, we're excited to see the new lobby. No more waiting outside in a crowded hallway."

The growth of gathering spaces

Russo agrees with Marty's sentiments about the cramped entryway.

"Before, the space outside the main entrance to the theater was really more like a hallway," Russo says. "It was loud. There was little room to move.... Having more space here is important, not only for performers to be able greet their fans and sell merchandise after a show, but also to improve on the entire patron experience."

The Sunset Lounge is an important upgrade, too. A dramatic glass box, it extends the building's public space toward Lake Mendota. And with a fireplace and catering station, it's ideal for events that happen before and after performances. The lounge will double as a student study and gathering space in a previously underused area of the Memorial Union. The atrium provides beautiful views of the lake, with glass "nanowalls" that can be folded open to usher in fresh air.

Although there were some concerns that the addition would compromise views from the Terrace, Russo predicts that an open-air deck adjacent to the lounge will become a coveted spot for watching sunsets, sailboats and Terrace-goers.

Another key gathering place, the new Class of 1925 Gallery, has been added to the second floor of the west wing, alongside the Play Circle. Unlike the previous location near the Porter Butts Gallery, it is fully accessible, opening directly into the second-floor lobby.

Looking to the future

Post-renovation, the Wisconsin Union Theater is ready to host more than 400 annual events, including world music, jazz and classical concerts, experimental dance events and small-scale touring musicals. Highlights of the 2014-15 season include performances by cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Oct. 18) and vocal ensemble Chanticleer (Feb. 21), plus a grand reopening bash that coincides with Madison World Music Festival (Sept. 12-13). And in mid-October WUT will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

"We feel it's help build arts audiences for the future," Russo says. "What better way to do that than to introduce students to great performances in this beautiful facility, right here on campus?"

Listening to him talk about WUT's impact on future students, it's easy to imagine that this is his favorite part.

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